Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Manger's Complaint

The Manger’s Complaint

By Jon Trott (Dec. 2006, edited again after posting, still needs more work)

Your judgment seems flawed, your reasoning strange
To want to live there in my smell and wet straw
Your beauty, your wisdom, your heavenly power
How can my wooden ugliness hold You without flaw?

Your taste in surroundings leaves much unexplained
The waste of the beasts, their bleats, brays, and moos
How can "I Am Who I Am" shrink down to this?
A stable, a hovel, why here Your Good News?

Your love for the empty, the broken and small
Brings tears to the simple but seems wrong after all
You’re Lord of Lords and King of Kings
Not Master of Mangers and all Worthless Things.

I was used to the straw, each animal’s face
Why choose me to cradle You, Child of Light's Grace
I hold the small limbs of Creation's Head;
God's Little Lamb Who makes all hearts His bed.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

O Little Town of Bethlehem: Barrier Wall Strangles Christian Community in Birthplace of Christ

If there is any doubt that Palestinian woes should haunt the Christmas season with the suffering of Christians where the holiday began, consider this news item from Catholic Relief Services:


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Barrier Wall is Strangling Palestinian Christian Community
in the Birthplace of Christ

By Elizabeth Griffin and David Snyder
Catholic Relief Services

Just over 2,000 years ago, the Holy Family made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to prepare for the moment that would change history forever. If they were to take that same route today, however, they would be greeted by a 25-foot barrier wall, armed guards, and a huge steel gate resembling those found on nuclear shelters. They could also be harassed for their identification papers, their belongings could be searched and it's quite possible they could be turned away, never allowed to enter Bethlehem. How different the story would be.

On a recent journey to the Holy Land, we witnessed this reality and the unfathomable results it has wrought. Before this trip, the full picture of this crisis was not clear to us. What we hear and read in the U.S. media is too filtered for us to really know the whole truth or to know how much the Palestinians in Bethlehem — and throughout the West Bank and Gaza — are suffering.

Some Israel-based human rights groups agree. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which comprises prominent Israeli academics, attorneys, journalists and Israeli parliament members, says, "In areas where the barrier has already been built, the extensive violations of human rights of Palestinians living nearby are evident."

In November of 2005, the birthplace of Christ was sealed off from Jerusalem — just in time for Christmas — depriving people of freedom of movement within their land, annexing entire communities and crippling the local economy. Amid security procedures locals say are growing more and more invasive, tourists and religious pilgrims, who are the major contributors to Bethlehem's economy, have stayed away in ever-increasing numbers. Those who do visit are encouraged by Israeli-led tour groups not to stay in Bethlehem. Rather, they are encouraged to support the hotels on the outskirts of the city, on the other side of the barrier wall.

Faced with constant and ever-changing restrictions on their movement by Israeli Defense Forces, residents of Bethlehem are finding it harder and harder to get to nearby cities like Jerusalem to work. The movement of goods and merchandise in and out of the walled-in area is completely controlled and taxed by Israeli authorities. All of these factors are contributing to an increasing unemployment rate, which the Bethlehem municipality says now stands at about 65 percent. Two millennia after the birth of Christ, this ancient, holy city is quite literally being strangled in the shadow of the barrier wall.

If it continues on its present course, the wall will eventually grow to 439 miles in length — more than four times the length of the Berlin Wall — standing as high as 26 feet in some places. Consisting of hundreds of miles of barbed wire and thousands of tons of concrete, it is the largest infrastructure project in Israel, with a price tag to match. The United Nations estimates that the projected cost of the wall will exceed $1 billion — for which the United States is at least partially willing to pay. According to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization that tracks the barrier wall's progress, the United States has diverted $50 million from $200 million slated for the Palestinian Authority to construct 34 high-tech, militarily secure crossings in the barrier wall.

Israel says the barrier wall will protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. Despite elaborate precautions on the part of the Israeli government, suicide bombings became a common occurrence in the restaurants and buses of Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem after the outbreak in 2000 of the second intifada. Wall proponents hope that building a physical barrier and forcing potential terrorists through designated checkpoints, like those that surround Bethlehem, will be an effective deterrent for those wishing to carry out such attacks.

Wall opponents recognize Israel's right to defend itself, but argue that the route of the wall creates serious moral problems, and many say it masks intentions far less benign than self-protection. Critics state that the barrier wall intrudes as far as 12.5 miles into the West Bank from the Green Line — considered to be the de facto eastern border of Israel — established in 1949. They say it encloses valuable water sources, precious farmland, and — most notably — 99 Israeli settlements on the Israeli side of the barrier.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which also closely monitors the progress of the barrier wall, more than 75 percent of the wall's total length is being built inside the West Bank. In July 2004, the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, ruled that the construction of the barrier wall in Palestinian territory was "contrary to international law." And a report released in November 2006 by Israeli advocacy group Settlement Watch states that "39 percent of the land used by Jewish settlements in the West Bank is private Palestinian property." According to a November 22 Washington Post article about the report, this land "includes some of the large settlement blocs inside the barrier that Israel is building to separate Israelis from the Palestinian population in the West Bank." Despite all of this, construction continues.

In Bethlehem, the barrier wall has created a prison-like existence for the dwindling Christian population there. The residents are beleaguered, and the merchants we spoke to feel the world does not understand their plight. Others blame fellow Christians overseas for not doing enough on their behalf.

For us, we will continue to tell everyone we know about the present-day story of Bethlehem — a sacred place now enmeshed in concrete and barbed wire. We will continue to relay our fears about the deteriorating humanitarian situation and how it not only compromises human dignity, but also puts at risk the long-term welfare of both Palestinians and Israelis who long for a just peace. We will continue to share our stories and photographs, and we will continue to raise awareness through as many avenues as possible. And over and over again, we will be reminded of Luke 2:15, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened." This Christmas season, the story of a miracle birth in a quiet manger seems impossibly distant from the little town of Bethlehem that we know today.

Elizabeth Griffin is the Director of Communications at Catholic Relief Services. She recently hosted a group of journalists on a visit to Gaza and the West Bank for the Agency’s annual Egan Award for Journalistic Excellence competition. David Snyder is a freelance photojournalist who for the last nine years has documented the work of Catholic Relief Services all over the world.

Thursday, December 07, 2006 is UP - with this blog!

I am a minimalist coder, but enlisted my son Christopher to help me figure out the nicieties of having this blog appear as the main feature on my site. As mentioned earlier, has links to various other writings and a couple other blogs I do / have done. Ideally, I'd like people to use the URL for links and so on. But whatever, it is what the old school called a "kludge" -- a sort of jerry-rigged setup that seems to work for now. Maybe I'll fine tune it and "slick it up" one day in order to fake people out about who they're dealing with. Unless it is already too late for that... Hmmm. Guess you're on to me.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Movies, Mike, and Me

Even if that is bad English...

Mike Hertenstein, co-author with me of Selling Satan and friend and neighbor in our shared communal life for more years than either of us care to admit, has posted some fascinating stuff on movies. No wonder. Mike is submerged in movie-dom, as Flickerings (both the Flickerings website and the annual "event" at Cornerstone Festival) illustrates.

Rather than rattle on, I'll merely point Blue Christian readers to Mike's latest:

What Mike calls the Dionysus thing is, for some of us at least, one of those many points where movements, movies, history and personalities come into new configurations. C. S. Lewis and Apocalypse Now? Whoa. How about a mega-showdown between Apollo and Dionysus? Sounds like an action flick, right? Well, Mike's major mind candy will, like all the best hard sweets, stick with you for a long time. (And I hope the producers of the Narnia movies read it very carefully...) In fact, here's a taste:

It would, for example, be most enlightening — or should I say intoxicating — to survey the landscape of the Gospel and Christian history for clues to locating a more Dionysian faith. In so many places you can actually feel some ancient, even primal energy straining against whatever cultural container barely holds it back, ready to explode into something sensual, even (dare we say it?) sexual. The Passion of the Christ. The ecstasy of St. Teresa. The throbbing beat of that ancient prayer, the Anima Christi: "Blood of Christ, inebriate me." John Donne's poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God… Except you enthrall me, [I] shall never be free. Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." You can almost hear the hypnotic rhythms of drums, the seductive melodies of the flutes, the sighs of the maenads, lost in their mad, whirling, self-forgetting dance...

And we could certainly talk more about C. S. Lewis in this connection, who throughout his writing divides human knowledge and ways of looking at the world into a division that coincides very well with the Apollonian-Dionysian opposition. Like Lewis the popular theologian, Lewis the literature teacher makes it clear that learning to engage with art requires wrestling away from Apollonian control a way of seeing that is closer to (he doesn't put it quite this nakedly) sex — as in "knowledge in the Biblical sense" — than in the abstract, practical, utilitarian, even scientific sense that some people approach art. Perhaps the very real relation between Dionysian seeing and Biblical knowledge is why RUSH pairs Apollo with Reason and Dionysus with Love, and also why N. T. Wright can call for Christian approach to knowing that makes knowledge not a subset of power but of love.

Fresher than the latter is Mike's CIFFBLOG from the Chicago International Film Festival this fall. Mike saw all the good movies (well, a lot of 'em), and offers his take. He didn't take me, and I'm in a snit over it. If you are a hardcore movie buff, or just interested in this coolest of Windy City alternative film options, make sure and check Mike's blog out.

But I really like Mike's Roberto Rossellini riffs (Mike loves that word) from last summer's Cornerstone Festival "Flickerings" program. Actually not quite finished, the multi-part set of postings is entitled "The Post-War Journey of Roberto Rosellini." Mike delves into what WWII did to the sensibilities of artists, and this great Italian director in particular. From Flowers of Saint Francis to Stromboli, Rossellini's early career, post-war vision offers some deeply faith-affirming, along with faith-wrenching, moments.

For instance, in his Flowers of Saint Francis treatment, Mike begins with a Merton quote and immediately begins making the reader uncomfortable:

The Plaster Saint, the stereotype of sanctity, is but a caricature, says Thomas Merton. Shaped by the unrealistic conventions of hagiography and pious art, that which offers itself as a divine pattern is generally a pious fraud: sinless perfection, immunity to temptation, pristine motivations, all the pat answers, right actions, and edifying clich├ęs — all of which could almost be chapter titles in a book on screenwriting for a Hollywood film about a saint. The Plaster Saint of the movies tends to stand above the world, abstracted from it, without humor, wonder, curiosity, or doubt.
They are always there kissing the leper's sores at the very moment when the king and his noble attendants come around the corner and stop in their tracks, mute in admiration...
Worse than this kitschy perfection, says Merton, is that most of us secretly think this model is the right one, that in our hearts we believe that the supernatural is equal to the denial of the human. Therefore, it should be no surprise if filmmakers can never seem to get it right. Especially in Hollywood, where the sanctimonious glow of celebrity has already baptized a dubious culture, the litany of saints and Messiahs, religious or secular, range on a continuum from stiff to fluff.

Well, I haven't done Mike justice here... but what can he do about it other than walk by my desk and stick his toungue out? Nothing... that's what. Or maybe cough up a copy of that Rossellini movie, Blaise Pascal, which I didn't hear of from Mike but sure want to see.